Ukrainians have downloaded Elon Musk’s Starlink, a satellite-based internet service, in their droves to stay online amid the conflict.
But Starlink satellites, which are operated by SpaceX, are likely to be attacked by Russian cyber attacks seeking sensitive military intel, a cyber analyst has warned.
“If a state hacker wants to hack into a company, they’re probably going to do it,” Hans Horan, a cyber analyst at intelligence consultancy Sibylline, said. “I think it’s best to assume Russian hackers are always probing systems.”
Gaining access to the satellites could yield information that would be helpful to Moscow, such as which Western Governments are supporting Kyiv or weaknesses in Ukraine’s defence.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr Musk gave the country dozens of low-orbit satellites, part of a system designed to get underserved areas online.
The arrival of Starlink allowed Ukraine to diversify its communications network and make it more difficult for Russia to completely shut it down – although Mr Musk warned the probability of Starlink being targeted was high given it “is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine”.
He later said SpaceX had begun repriotising to “cyber defence [and] overcoming signal jamming”.
Since the invasion, the Starlink app has become the most downloaded in Ukraine with 100,000 downloads.
Parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure, such as telecommunications and government agencies, appear to be at least partially supported by Starlink, “meaning that any attacks against this system could present notable logistical concerns [and] constraints on Kyiv,” said Mr Horan.
Direct attacks on Starlink’s satellites are unlikely given the complexity of the IT system, so hackers will aim for the individuals who operate the system, he said. For example, sending a phishing email could give hackers initial access.
“Satellites are largely designed to send and receive data, meaning that Russia-linked actors with long-term access to these networks could siphon off sensitive information, such as military tracking data,” said Mr Horan.
“As such, any attacks launched against Starlink’s satellites will likely be aimed at gaining insights into topics of strategic interest to Moscow, such as potential impending assistance from Western governments or information that could help the Russian government determine where Ukraine or its Western allies’ defences are the weakest.”
However, work to figure out what information the system contains would take days, weeks or even months, said Mr Horan, adding that there was time for attacks to be shut down.